Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that Victor Miller prevailed in his lawsuit against Sean Cunningham’s companies (Horror Inc. and The Manny Company) regarding ownership of the original Friday the 13th screenplay. A law passed in the 70’s permits authors to reclaim ownership of works they sold after 35 years. On September 28, a federal judge agreed that screenwriter Victor Miller was within his rights to do just that. Not mincing words, Judge Stephan Underhill stated bluntly, “Miller is declared the sole owner of the copyright in the screenplay to Friday the 13th.”
The last time we visited this subject, the outcome of Miller’s case was still relatively uncertain. But now that Judge Underhill reached a decision, the obvious question becomes: what now? First, a legal primer. The decision places Victor Miller in essentially the same position he was in back in 1978, before he signed a contract that paid him a mere $9200 in exchange for his script, with one important difference. Now, the entire world knows that the film based on his screenplay earned nearly $40M in box office gross, placing it squarely in the top 20 highest earning films of 1980.
Needless to say, Miller holds substantially more bargaining power today than he did as a relatively unknown writer in the 70’s, which is exactly the point of the law. That said, the reversion of rights comes with a couple of important limitations. First, a “derivative work” (e.g. the film based on the screenplay, plus any sequels) prepared prior to the effective date of the termination “may continue to be utilized.” In other words, Cunningham can continue to profit from sales and rentals of the 1980 film and all of its existing sequels and remakes. So what, if anything, does Miller get for his efforts?